Ranakpur in Rajasthan is synonymous with its world-famous Jain temple. So much so that another, older temple located less than half-a-kilometre from the Jain temple lies virtually forgotten, visited only by the someone who knows about it existence – the 13th century Suryanarayan Temple or Sun Temple.
It is around 3 in the afternoon when our group arrives at the Sun Temple. Looking back, I’m still astonished that we made it to the temple for there are no signboards or markers to guide a visitor to the Sun Temple. If the manager of our tour group had not known about the Sun Temple, I doubt we would have visited it.
Built from low-grade marble, which has weathered beautifully over the centuries, the exterior of the temple is intricately carved with Surya or the Sun God seated on a chariot drawn by horses. The temple faces east, and has a sanctum topped by a shikhara in the nagara style, and an octogonal mandapa preceding the sanctum. The mandapa has some of the most exquisitely carved pillars and sculpted toranas I have seen. This is the first time I’m visiting a sun temple and I’m fascinated by the unusual motifs and iconography on the walls here.
A drive through sleepy hamlets, lush green fields and the village of Aihole (pronounced I-ho-lay), brought us to another heritage temple site dating from around the 5th century.
Known as Aryapura in ancient times, Aihole occupies a unique place in the history of temple architecture in India. It was the site for experimenting with different temple-building styles by the early Chalukyan kings from AD 450 to 750. This experimentation began in Aihole, continued at Badami and finally culminated at Pattadakal. Our guide told us that the ruins of a temple, probably dating back to pre-Chalukyan times, had been recently excavated in Aihole. The present-day village settlement and agricultural lands were coming in the way of a full-scale excavation.
There are around 120 temples of varying styles and sizes in Aihole (all built from the same local red sandstone). I tried to imagine 120 temples, each with a unique architecture and failed. But I could imagine the whole area being turned into an architectural laboratory or a workshop, with architects and sculptors being invited over and given a site for constructing a temple. Just imagining the creative buzz in the area was enough to give me a high! Unfortunately, our group had the time to visit only one site, which had about 4 temples of such varying styles that it was astonishing and gave a glimpse into the kind of experimenting that was promoted and encouraged.